American excess? That will do nicely for UK students

Summer breaks – post-exam binges in idyllic locations – are catching on in a big way in Britain
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The Independent Online

Pembrey Country Park is a jewel on the south coast of Wales, an oasis of woodland and pristine beaches of Carmarthenshire. It is a haven for families and nature lovers, but from today, it will also be a magnet for armies of extremely drunk students.

Locals could be forgiven for bracing themselves – or fleeing – as more than 20,000 graduates arrive to celebrate the end of the academic year with a festival of music and booze.

Beach Break Live 2011, a four-day extravaganza, owes much to the similarly debauched American tradition of spring breaks, where students in their "reading" weeks do anything but as they let off steam on beaches in Miami, Palm Springs or over the border in Cancun (Mexico's legal drinking age is 18; in the US it's 21).

Tales of booze-fuelled hedonism mixed with tragedy have become a common feature of the American events. Most recently, the case of Molly Ammon, a 19-year-old University of Florida freshman who died early this year of alcohol poisoning at nearly five times the limit, highlighted the heavy flow of alcohol.

British students are, of course, no stranger to drinking or celebrating the end of their studies but organised summer breaks have become big business in recent years.

In 2007, the first year of Beach Break Live, 1,000 students arrived. Ten times as many came by the third year. Their US counterparts would perhaps find them tame, although pole dancing, mud wrestling and beauty contests all feature on the programme.

Beach Break Live's co-founder, Celia Norowzian, says that she and business partner Ian Forshew deliberately set out not to replicate the US event. The pair met at Birmingham University running their own campus-based events. On graduating, they approached the BBC's Dragons' Den and sparked a bidding war among the Dragons, eventually agreeing to sign up with Peter Jones.

Later they parted company with Jones, instead striking a deal with Manchester-based Outgoing Ltd, the student event and travel specialist best known for staging the infamous Snowbombing Festival in the Austrian ski resort of Mayrhofen.

Ms Norowzian said: "The idea of finishing exams and going on a huge party is true to the American Spring Break but the difference is ours is very British and is far more about the music and the whole festival experience.

"Because it is all students who have just finished their exams you have an atmosphere that is quite light and student-focused but it can get pretty wild too," she added.

Now in its fifth year, the event is, perhaps surprisingly, seen as relatively free of disturbance or trouble. While objections from locals remain, they are more muted then in previous years, no doubt in part because of the relatively few arrests in 2010 – just 14 in four days.

Outgoing Ltd hosts a similar Summerbreak festival in Newquay on the coast of Cornwall. The tone of that event was perhaps best expressed by the rapper, Example, who was booked for the event, when he tweeted: "Off to Newquay to play Summerbreak. Standardly gonna be a lot of STIs floating about...." Perhaps inevitably, sex is seen, along with alcohol, as one of the big draws of these events.

Rebecca Powers, an American living in London, said it was one of the factors that had made the Spring Break getaway to resorts from Florida to Mexico such a big deal in her native country.

"It's seen as a right of passage," she explained. "Every college student wants to up and leave for the beach for their week of debauchery. They think all they need to pack is a suitcase full of bikinis and condoms."

Pauly Jeffery, one of the Cornish event's organisers, said it had been only a matter of time before UK students took up the concept. "Where America leads, we follow five or six years later," he said. "Students got the idea straight away which is why it was able to grow." Explaining its continued appeal compared with other festivals, he added: "They make it very affordable for stretched student finances. So for under £90 you can come down for four days and see some of the top DJs.

"The idea is to bring the students down here, have some fun and games on the beach, party at night, just let your hair down after your exams – it's been a very successful formula," he said. "It's about herding sheep, really. We bus them into town, marshal them into the gates, the pubs and clubs, and then back out onto the buses."

It is so successful an operation that even in Newquay – where residents frequently complain about the town's decline during the summer – locals concede it causes little, if any, bother.

The residents of Carmarthenshire will be hoping the same is true in their locality this weekend.